Saturday, May 29, 2004

Conservative Watch: The Cracks Widen

The Economist while quite fleet of foot to criticize technical matters has been on its political agenda almost preternaturally even handed toward GWB. This is not to discount the cover that stated baldly Resign, Rumseld or to downplay the cover that showed GWB as a cocky cowboy but overall those were two pitched comments amidst a sea of almost tranquil British aplomb and dry detached witty commentary. Now the Economist is documenting what has been a widening story this side of the Atlantic for some time - that the conservative base is getting restless.

Particularly worrying to such a partisan president is the fact that some mainstream Republicans are beginning to go wobbly. Pete Domenici, a usually loyal senator, told Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, that he could see no clear vision in the administration’s strategy in Iraq. Richard Lugar, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also demanded a clearer strategy. “If we cannot provide this clarity, we risk the loss of support of the American people, loss of potential contributions from our allies and the disillusionment of Iraqis.” Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, went further: America must restrain its “growing Messianic instincts”, and stop engaging in “social engineering” designed to promote democracy around the world.

Mr Bush is sufficiently worried about loss of support within his own party—remember that it was Republican defections, as much as anything else, that cost his father his re-election in 1992—that he took the unusual step of travelling to Capitol Hill on May 20th to rally his allies. He duly got his standing ovations, but the speech produced a worrying bit of symbolism. He likened the handover to taking the training wheels off a bicycle: “It’s time for [the Iraqis] to take the bike and go forward.” A few days later Mr Bush fell off his own bike in Texas, badly scraping his face.

Two things explain the nervousness in the party leadership. The first is growing worries about Mr Bush’s competence as a leader. A small army of military brass has queued up to question the administration’s strategy in Iraq, The most prominent, and potentially damaging, attack was the broadside from Anthony Zinni, a former commander in the Middle East and special envoy to the region for Colin Powell. In a new book—“Battle Ready”, by Tom Clancy (Putnam)—General Zinni says that he has been moved to speak out by a catalogue of errors: “false rationales presented as a justification; a flawed strategy; lack of planning; the unnecessary alienation of our allies; the underestimation of the task; the unnecessary distraction from real threats; and the unbearable strain dumped on our overstretched military.”

There are also growing doubts, even among Republicans, about the decision-making process that led to war. The question that obsesses Washington at the moment is how Ahmed Chalabi gained such influence over the administration. The neo-conservatives’ favourite Arab, whose Baghdad offices were recently raided by Iraqi police supported by American troops, is widely suspected of feeding the administration false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, possibly in Iran’s interests, and of seducing it into thinking that the Iraqis would welcome the Americans with flowers. This may be bureaucratic revenge: both the CIA and the State Department have always resented Mr Chalabi’s influence over the Pentagon and Dick Cheney, the vice-president. But the Chalabi firestorm has reinforced widespread doubts about Mr Bush’s leadership style.

This might seem merely a political movement to rein in Bush, but apparently the cracks really do go all the way through the bottom of the base. What's my evidence for this? Rupert Murdoc funds an environmental movie attacking GWB as a weak leader. When the owner of Fox News thinks you've gone too far then you better watch out! Kuntzman of Newsweek delivers the lines exploring the under-reported facts in this case.

May 28 - How do I know that George W. Bush can actually be defeated in November? Simple, I've just seen the big summer blockbuster movie.

That may not sound like the best way to determine the president's vulnerability—after all, summer blockbusters typically concern themselves with high body counts rather than high approval ratings—but this time, the summer blockbuster is "The Day After Tomorrow," a rabidly pro-environment, anti-Bush lecture released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Let's put that another way: when conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch releases a movie that depicts President Bush as little more than a vapid pawn of Vice President Dick Cheney and decries him for, of all things, his environmental policies, you know the president is in trouble.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Billmon of Whiskey-Bar blog is back and indulging in some long-pent up gloating. I suppose it can be difficult to refrain from glee when one's political opponents are hitting a rocky stretch after having for so long evaded accountibility. I can share in no such rejoicing becaues I only hold a deep sadness that my party of the "old-right" has had to come to such straits before it can begin to throw off the neo-fascist "new-right" that had unfortunately clambered and bickered their way into power.

So this is what failure looks like – and, realistically, it’s much too late to look to the UN or NATO or our Arab “allies” to save us from the consequences of the administration’s folly.

Strategic failure on such a grand scale is obviously going to have huge repercussions, not just in Iraq, not just in the Middle East, and not just for the war against Al Qaeda. Much more than 9/11, a U.S. defeat in Iraq (or, at least, an outcome that is perceived as a strategic defeat both at home and abroad) has at least the potential to change, if not everything, then lots of things -- from the U.S. political balance of power, to the future of NATO, to the health of the global economy.

Old debates – about the limits of U.S. power and the consequences of U.S. decline – may be resurrected. America’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign investment – the main prop beneath our current prosperity – could be undermined. But the ultimate consequences of the Iraq fiasco are really almost impossible to predict. In other words, while we may not be looking into the abyss (to borrow Gen. Hoar’s phrase) we are certainly peering out over a dark and fog-covered landscape.

Unfortunately America truly is staring over the edge of the abyss. The stakes don't simply seem to be whether or not Iraq destabilizes, but whether Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt potentially destabilize as well. To those who shrug and say "Oh well," it should be reminded that however horrendous a leader Saddam was to his own people "20/20" hindsight has shown him to have been a stabilizing influence on the ever-critical oil-production region. His removal was begun unwinding a series of careful checks and counter-checks and as the dominoes fall the direction they are toppling is not democracy and liberalized secular societies. It's too early to see the full consequences of the fall of Iraq but it could essentially end up with the region being dominated by radical regimes or regimes beholden to radical forces to remain in power.

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